History in the Making


Brexit: People Had Enough With Distant Bureaucrats Telling Them What To Do

One of my enduring interests is research and teaching related to values-driven business. I jumped at the opportunity to teach a law and ethics course in London this summer with 14 bright UConn undergraduates. Such a program is filled with experiential education – we visited the US Embassy, the UK Supreme Court, Lloyd’s of London, and the Royal Society for the Arts, among other places.

Little did I know that our summer course would take place right in the middle of one of the most important events of modern Europe – the vote on whether the fifth-largest economy in the world would leave the European Union.

This vote, commonly known as Brexit, highlighted that there were two United Kingdoms, just as some would say there are two Americas. Britons seem less restrained to talk casual politics, and more than once I was asked if I was for ‘leave or remain.’ In London, locals were firmly in favor of remain. It seemed inconceivable to them that the UK would separate itself from the lucrative trade and investment benefits that the EU membership provided. Talk to anyone in the city and one would think that remain was an inevitable outcome.

Leave the city and the story was sharply different. Even while seated in the Newark (N.J.) airport waiting to board for my flight to London, I was subjected to a lecture from two Britons about the inevitability of leaving. Schools would be shouldered with students speaking 40 different languages, they said. Immigrants would claim benefits for their children, they said. Money sent to the EU would safely return to where it belongs, they said.

That taste of leave became a mouthful when I toured Cornwall, one of the most rural and economically depressed areas of the UK. Amongst the narrow hedgerows and quaint small towns, sentiment was firmly in favor of leave. People had enough with distant bureaucrats telling them what to do. Fears of immigration were significant. Once I noticed that 13 of the 15 Brexit signs I spotted exhorted leaving, I stopped counting. Cornwall had its bags packed, and its destination was total independence.

When the UK voted leave by a slim 52-48 margin, the media coverage was overwhelming, with every news channel chronicling the smallest details and implications of the vote to leave. Londoners I spoke with, no doubt biased in favor of academics and professionals, were surprised by the decision. The stock market plummeted, a rush for citizen-retaining marriage certificates were filed, and my students and I found the UK open for business at a currency-depressed discount. What was traumatic for the country was good for the tourist. London was “on sale” if you held US dollars.

One of the many benefits of teaching bright and interested UConn undergraduates is that they are able to think on their feet and absorb the full implications of their experiences. Brexit was not just a passing news story, but an enduring question that would impact the UK for decades to come. The students “got it,” and frequently referred to Brexit when applying their readings and while on field visits. When a US Embassy staffer lectured our students about foreign service, they pinged him about Brexit. When a senior ethics officer of BP proselytized ethics and integrity, they questioned him about Brexit.

This was both a momentous economic event and a pedagogical opportunity. My students were learning. They were experiencing. And they were witness to one of the most important economic events for years to come.


Robert Bird (UConn School of Business)

Robert Bird
Associate Professor of Business Law, Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics
Robert Bird is an associate professor of business law and the Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics at the University of Connecticut School of Business. Robert’s interests include ethics, employment law, legal strategy, business and human rights, and related fields. Robert has taught study abroad courses in Rome, Florence, Paderno del Grappa, and London. His extensive research has uncovered the two best places to buy gelato in Florence. View posts.